Nine Indians killed in Maoist gunbattle

Six rebels and three police officers die in ongoing battle in forest in eastern India's Jharkhand state.

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PATNA, India // Six suspected Maoist rebels and three police officers were killed early today in a fierce gunbattle in a densely forested area of eastern India, police said. The gunbattle broke out yesterday when police and paramilitary soldiers launched an operation to clear the Saranda forest in Jharkhand state of rebel hideouts, said RK Mallick, the state's inspector general of police. At least six rebels and three police officers were killed overnight, Mr Mallick said, adding that the gunbattle was ongoing.

The Saranda forest is around 385 kilometres south of Patna, the nearest big city. Meanwhile, in neighboring Chhattisgarh state, a massive search was on today for four of seven police officers kidnapped by rebels more than a week ago. The bodies of three officers were found two days after they were kidnapped September 19, said Rajesh Mishra, the state's inspector-general of police.

The rebels have set a 48-hour deadline for the Chhattisgarh state government to call off operations against the rebels and release Maoist leaders in prison, failing which the officers will be killed, Mishra said. The deadline ends late tomorrow.

The rebels, inspired by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, have fought the government for more than four decades in several parts of India, demanding land and jobs for landless farmers and the poor.

The government has said it will not negotiate with the rebels until they give up violence and are ready for peace talks.

The insurgents - often targeting police, soldiers and government officials - have tapped into anger among the rural poor over being left out of the country's economic gains.

The rebels are now present in 20 of India's 28 states and have an estimated 20,000 fighters, according to the Home Ministry.

The Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh has described the insurgency as the biggest internal security challenge facing the country.

* AP